#RPGaDay Day Eight: Two Hours to Kill

Still playing catch-up, I sally forth into Day 8 of #RPGaDay. The question: what is a good RPG to play for sessions of 2hrs or less?

I think a lot of people would agree that Fate is a useful system for this. Fate is the Swiss army knife of games – it will do whatever you need it to, and it will do it well. However, I think there’s quite a lot to this question, even if the answer can be summed up quickly. Whether or not an RPG can be played for two hours or less isn’t so much the query – most can be. OK, some are clearly better suited than others, but you can, at a push, play most RPGs for two hours or less, assuming character creation, levelling, etc. aren’t included.

Only a few RPGs can provide a satisfying play experience in two hours or less. What even is a satisfying play experience? If we could answer that, I guess we’d all be star GMs! But different RPGs have different concentration of content. Our Monsterhearts group (sorry, yes, this is another Monsterhearts post, feel free to switch off now) takes place in a house with a small child. Two of the players are said child’s parents, so sometimes inevitably we will have to stop the game early. (I should emphasise that this isn’t a judgement in any way – we get a good number of sessions at a good length, but it is a circumstance that is new to me!) Even when we can only have a short session, we always manage to pack a lot in, because Monsterhearts has a strange tension by which it tends to move very slowly as we explore the minutiae of every character’s day (we’ve joked that if we don’t timeskip ahead by whole terms at a time, we’ll never get through more than a month of school in a single season), but each of those little scenes is an intense exploration of character and situation. The improvisational format of Monsterhearts means you end up with every space of time being concentrated drama. Not every single scene is gold, and not every one advances your character, but within two hours, there should be time to move each of the characters forward – if not, the MC perhaps needs to work on sharing the spotlight around more.

However, Monsterhearts is also a game where playing for only two hours will leave the players very hungry for more, as they may well have to stop halfway through a pivotal scene or they might be anticipating a big showdown at the school dance, only you set the school dance for the end of the week and at this rate it’ll be four sessions before you even get there.

I don’t actually have a good suggestion for a game that can provide a satisfying session within two hours. It would need to be something that provides enough concentrated fun without a lot of dead time, but also has a freeform approach to running it that the GM can find something cool to finish within a single short session. It goes without saying that games with complex combat systems like 4E are unlikely to be successful – nobody wants to stretch a single combat over three sessions!

The sense of narrative satisfaction/catharsis, whether it comes from victory over an enemy, saving innocents, solving a mystery, spiralling deeper into horror or finally getting that cute person to kiss you, becomes even more important and many times more difficult when you have such a limited time. You can railroad the characters into ‘right now, you’re going to do this’, and that may well work for some groups, especially if the two hour session has been agreed during the game set up, so everyone’s aware of what they’re in for, but I really hate walking away from a game and feeling like I didn’t actually do anything to contribute to the story or move my character’s story forward.

Huh, turns out I do have a suggestion, though admittedly I haven’t read it in years, so I may be misremembering: Don’t Rest Your Head. That’s a game split between the real world and the dream world, and therefore has a good reason to move between different narrative states. Since the whole point of Don’t Rest Your Head as far as I’ve seen it is the grinding attempts to stay awake (which can be done easily as a montage to reflect time passing) giving way to the intense, horrifying nightmares of the dream world, you can condense time and give people two hours of hell that they might need a week or so to recover from.

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